Kick-Ass movie poster with Nicolas Cage, Aaron Johnson, Chloe Moretz and Christopher Mintz-PlasseKick-Ass

Is it worrisome that I was not as shocked by Kick-Ass as the movie was clearly intended to make me? Yes, there is some horrible violence perpetrated — and a few choice epithets spoken — by a young girl. But nothing that seemed out of place in the world in which the movie takes place, one on the pop-art side of the color palette from Se7en, a movie which also treats violence and vigilantism as symptoms of a dessicated society (albeit more seriously).

But what the opening of Kick-Ass promises (‘not just another comic book story’), it ultimately doesn’t deliver. Perhaps it’s better entertainment to conform, in the end, to the storytelling tropes we expect. The problem is that for much of the film I was bored, watching it all play out in the way I expected, albeit with some directorial verve from of Matthew Vaughn of Layer Cake and Stardust.

Nicolas Cage as Big Daddy in the Movie Kick-AssEverything I enjoyed about Kick-Ass basically revolves around Nicolas Cage. His over-the-top persona in this film is just what the doctor ordered, undercutting the grandiose pretensions of the plot and adding a certain patina of weirdness in his relationship with his daughter, Mindy aka Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz, also fantastic). When the movie cuts back to its A plot, about the hapless Dave Lizewski, played credibly by British actor Aaron Johnson, all the momentum goes out. Rather than reveal he is a sexy superhero, Lizewski pretends to be gay so he can hang out with his crush. Thankfully, the movie doesn’t belabor this exhausted situation comedy setup, although its climax, where Lizewski reveals his true identity, is the movie’s least believable scene. What should be a shock to Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca) is not taken seriously by the writing or the acting.

Johnson plays awkward, but is never that nerdy. Meanwhile, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, as rich geek Chris D’Amico, shows how nerdy is done. When his character, another teen with pretensions of superherodom, dons a mask, the result is fantastic. The movie not only generates humor from the disconnect between the person and the persona, it actually generates some real inner conflict as well. Mintz-Plasse has been typecast as an übergeek since he came out of a massive Superbad casting call to play one. But in terms of acting, it’s one thing to indicate geekery, as Aaron Johnson does here or, say, Anthony Michael Hall does in Weird Science. It’s another thing to have the geekery be the background for a richer emotional palette.

To say Kick-Ass doesn’t deserve Mintz-Plasse, Cage or Moretz’ performances is to short-shrift the writing. There are certainly interesting layers in the film. It just makes the more one-dimensional parts stand out stronger, perhaps.

Perhaps because of a smart/dumb duality, I do feel the movie was mis-marketed. The yellow block lettering against black with bloody splatter seemed calculated to evoke another box office underperformer, Watchmen. To pull in the mass multiplex crowd, both movies would’ve had to be PG-13’d down. But neither story benefits from that sort of thinking. The worst parts of Kick-Ass seemed to be a half-hearted pander to this mentality.

While the movie may have disappointed at the box office, I don’t think my reaction to this film is typical. The audience at the Vista Theater opening night was definitely into it, and my comic-book-loving friend was bouncing with excitement the entire film. Maybe he had built up my expectations too high for the movie. Or maybe, post-Watchmen, a cinematic deconstruction of the superhero genre feels passé. Pick your reason, but I’m downgrading the title to Butt-Slap. It’s a fine film, but it doesn’t totally kick ass.

How to Train Your Dragon movie posterHow to Train Your Dragon

I know I’m a few weeks late to weigh in on the box-office battle that occurred between Dragon and Kick-Ass. Basically, the story is that Lions Gate, the distributor of Kick-Ass is facing a takeover from a guy named Carl Icahn, who is famous for buying companies and dismantling them. Icahn has been persistently trying to take over Lions Gate for a while now, although as movie libraries plummet in value, I’m not sure how he thinks he can break it up and sell off the pieces for more than the whole.

Regardless, Lions Gate has a barbarian at their gate, and they tried to pull a fast one by including some Thursday numbers in their weekend box office projections in order to edge out Dragon in the week it opened. (Both movies opened softer than expected.) In the ensuing weeks however, Dragon has continued to fly.

But all of that inside baseball has little to do with the merits of How to Train Your Dragon. Dragon is a fine date movie, and equal to Kick-Ass in the geek-becomes-hero department. I really liked the production and character design, especially the grizzled Viking who has an arm that can be interchanged with various Viking implements, including a beer stein.

If Kick-Ass has a predictable story arc, then Dragon has the same, but more. Nonetheless, it’s entertaining all the way through, and fine family entertainment. I doubt it will go down in animation history as a classic, but the use of 3D is generally pretty good. The flying sequence has rightly been praised, and the few “gimmicky” moments are fine by my book. As always, I recommend seeing it in RealD if available, over other formats like Dolby Digital 3D or IMAX 3D.

Honestly, in the two weeks since I saw it, not much of How to Train Your Dragon has stuck with me. Dreamworks continues to churn out hit movies but still live in PIXAR’s shadow. I guess if I had to put a finger on it, it is that the PIXAR movies come from a more sincere place than the Dreamworks ones. Shrek is still the tentpole, and it’s built around satire. Dragon has more heart than other Dreamworks Animation films I’ve seen, and if that’s the direction Katzenberg and co. is headed, then PIXAR should watch their backs.